What's remarkable about the McDonald's lobster roll, which has returned to restaurants in the Northeast this summer after a decade-long absence, isn't just the novelty of the fancy seafood sandwich at a fast food joint.
It's that it costs a mere $7.99, a bargain price relative to nearly anybody else selling lobster rolls, whose prices can often be easily double that.
It hints at perhaps McDonald's greatest strength: the company has a huge and extremely efficient supply chain that lets it buy food at lower prices than other restaurants, and capitalize on swings in commodity prices. And as its lobster roll illustrates, this advantage doesn't just extend to burgers.
McDonald's has often offered items with ingredients far fancier than Big Mac sauce, particularly in other countries. It makes you wonder what other fine dining dishes the chain could make mainstream in the U.S.--if it had the will.
It has tried, and failed, with similar experiments in the past, for example testing crab cakes in some stores in the early 2000s. Recent reviews of the new lobster roll haven't all been great either — Eater.com described it as "some awful sort of seafood salad," though Boston.com argued that for $7.99, it's "not too shabby." But there's always hope.
With that in mind, we spoke to some creative culinary industry types about the kind of things McDonald's could take from the land of tablecloths and wine menus to the wider world of drive-thrus and ketchup packets. Here are some ideas that could reshape the way we think about fast food.
Just imagine it all in take-out bags.
1. Truffle fries
McDonald's has experimented with truffle sauce in the past, using it in the Black Burger in Hong Kong, which cost about $2.27. Why not truffle fries? The chain is already testing shake-on seasonings — like ranch, chipotle BBQ and garlic parmesan — for its fries in certain markets.
There are artificial truffle flavor options that a manufacturer could turn to for price, consistency, and stability, "but there are also ways to extend the real product in affordable ways — infused oils or 'dust' made with less expensive forms [like] peelings, trim, less costly varieties," says Scott Allmendinger, who works on menu development projects as director of consulting at The Culinary Institute of America.
2. More seafood in general. Let's start with tuna burgers with ginger and wasabi
Don't stop at lobster. McDonald's could offer fresh-ground tuna or salmon (not canned) shaped into a patty, which is cheaper than using fish filets, says Allmendinger. The ground meat can be infused with flavorings, for example ginger, wasabi, and sesame oil for tuna; or dill, citrus, or chipotle for salmon.
"This savory spin will often entice someone to try it who might otherwise be afraid it might be 'fishy,'" he said.
3. Shrimp cocktail
McDonald's could easily do a shrimp cocktail, said Denis Durante, owner of Direct to Chefs, a company that markets foods to restaurants and retailers. Most shrimp is delivered cooked and frozen, and can be thawed in just a few minutes.
Think of calamari as a high-protein french fry, part of the family of delicious, crunchy, salty finger foods that most people associate more with onion rings or mozzarella sticks. There may be problems securing enough supply of other kinds of seafood to fry up, said Durante, but "calamari would work."
5. Portabella mushrooms
A portabella mushroom may sound pretty fancy, but it's actually the same species as the crimini mushroom and button mushroom — agaricus bisporus. Portabellas are the most mature and are grown with a strain that has brown flesh, while button mushrooms come from a strain that produces a white flesh. Crimini mushrooms are simply portabellas harvested three to seven days earlier.
McDonald's has already brought grilled mushrooms into kitchens for its build-your-own burger program, which it is gradually rolling out in the U.S. The bigger mushroom could serve as a hearty vegetarian alternative in sandwiches, wraps, and salads.
6. Three cheese grilled cheese
McDonald's already offers several kinds of cheeses in restaurants with the build-your-own burger program: cheddar, pepper jack, and American. There a few bread options in the restaurants, but really, what could be better than a buttered english muffin?
It's already something people make at home. Grilled cheese can also be dressed up easily with slices of tomato and onion, or, for meat lovers, strips of bacon.
7. Duck salad
McDonald's already serves chicken in salad. Swapping it out for a rarer poultry like duck would make the meal just a little more exciting.
8. Guac and chips
Another ingredient McDonald's is adding for its custom burgers: guacamole and tortilla strips. While the chain uses them as burger toppings, there's a pretty obvious, and delicious, side dish just waiting to happen here.